THIS summer is being viewed as ground zero for Bolton Wanderers and the quest to establish themselves in the world of high-level women’s football.

Some might say the recent announcement that, for the first time in decades, the women’s team will come under the control of the main club and be funded as an independent, semi-professional entity, was long overdue.

In recent years the flag has been flown proudly by Wanderers’ community arm, who have established a thriving system of junior footballers. But attempts to elevate the senior team – or even create a breakaway side – have proven problematic and ill-conceived.

This year, however, Wanderers seem to mean business. They have appointed a full-time manager in Myles Smith, who boasts experience in the men’s and women’s game with West Ham, Manchester United and Saudi club Al-Ittihad.

The team will have full access to training facilities at Lostock but aim to establish an independent home on matchdays at Atherton Colls’ 1,500 capacity Skuna Stadium.

And perhaps most importantly, they will set about a pre-season programme on Tuesday this week which will be as close to professional as can feasibly be managed, all with the intention of securing promotion in their first season, which begins in seven weeks’ time.

An internal trial was held last week for players who had already represented, and two external trials turned up several more talents who will join the squad.

A UEFA licensed coach, Smith was part of the staff who assembled West Ham’s first-ever WSL team in 2018, a year later seeing them face Manchester City in the FA Cup final at Wembley.

As a club playing in the sixth tier of the women’s game, all of whom will be juggling work and study with their football, doing so with Wanderers would be the stuff of fairytales, but the new manager makes no secret of his ambition.

“Don’t completely write off our chances,” he laughed.

“Recruitment is absolutely key for me at the moment. The team finished 35 points off the top of the league last season, and we are going to try and win the league this time, nothing less.

“That is 11 or 12 wins that I need to make up, so that tells me that I need a few new faces in the environment.

“Pre-season is all about the tactical side of things, plus the physical aspect, but I have to get this team organised and know what they are doing come the start of the season.

“This is the first time I have worked with a group of players where I haven’t got access to them full-time, where it isn’t their actual jobs. It is new but I have to respect it.

“We have bulked out the schedule this year. In previous years it has been Tuesday and Thursday session, maybe some gym on top of that. This time we are adding recovery sessions, three team training sessions a week, strength and conditioning sessions, individual development and analysis on top of that. The schedule is as close to a professional, full-time schedule as I can make it, while respecting the players’ other commitments as well.

“It seems to have been received well. I want us to do this as we mean to go on. What we want to achieve in the future is to be a professional full-time programme for the women’s team, to be in tier three, two, one. And we have to start that now.

“Ultimately, there will be faces that can’t commit to it, and that is the game we are in, but those who do come on this journey will reap the rewards, I am sure of that.”

The new BWFC Women crest designThe new BWFC Women crest design (Image: NQNW)

Wanderers have set themselves a loose target of climbing to the third tier of the women’s game in five years, which would involve three promotions.

They currently play in the North West Regional Football League Division One North, which this year will include Blackpool, Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, Preston North End, Atherton LR, Fleetwood Town, Haslingden, Hindley Juniors, Penrith, Radcliffe and Workington Town.

“Promotion for us is key this year, we don’t want to shy away from that, and we want to climb the leagues as time goes on,” Smith said.

“Every year you go up it gets a little bit trickier but the club’s ambition is to be in the top leagues in women’s football and hopefully I can start that journey, get them all the way there, but it’s a long way yet.

“One of the things that attracted me to the role was that it is a blank canvass. It is an unbelievable project with huge potential, and that is what brought me in.

“I did have offers higher up in the WSL and Championship and offers abroad in Europe and Saudi Arabia but the potential this project has, and leading it, is what attracted me to take it.

“I am confident we can do a good job here. When it was announced I said I wanted to create happy memories for everyone, and nobody is happy finishing second or third.

“We can do it, but I am only a small part of getting the job done. The team has to do it, other members of staff, everyone at the club has to do their little bit to get a promotion and I’ll have to lean on a lot of people.”

Myles Smith is welcomed to the club by CEO Neil HartMyles Smith is welcomed to the club by CEO Neil Hart (Image: BWFC)

Wanderers have established a partnership with Atherton Colls which will see the women’s team play their games at the Skuna Stadium.

The club is confident that it can attract independent commercial incomes to help fund the new operation but ultimately, Smith wants to also establish a core of Bolton supporters who also turn out on a Sunday.

“We didn’t want to be a team playing on some 4G pitch somewhere with a cage around it in a park,” he said. “We want this to be somewhere fans can come down, enjoy a game and support Bolton Wanderers.

“I think the partnership we have struck there shows we want to do this properly.

“When the announcement went out about me coming in and the plans for the women’s team, it was one of the most welcoming responses I have ever had, honestly, it was unbelievable.

“It felt right from the start that people were excited about this. There is no hiding from the fact that women’s football can be taken in different ways from different people, we see that online every day, but the welcome from everyone in Bolton – and definitely from every member of staff at the club, has been unbelievable.

“It seems that everyone is so passionate about this place, and why not, it is an absolutely huge club.

“The men want to climb the leagues and went close last season, hopefully they go one better this year, and it is now about time the women’s team does that too.”

Smith was selected ahead of 180 applicants for the women’s team manager this summer, having spent last season in Saudi Arabia. He is now looking forward to the “fun part” which will be to establish a core squad from last week’s trials and utilise some of his contacts to bring in players from elsewhere – a process he admits is helped massively by the opportunity to train at Lostock.

“From my past, and I worked in the WSL for quite a while, I have managed to get some good connections within the game,” he said.

“Locally to us Manchester City and Manchester United are the obvious ones, Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Liverpool, and I have already stated conversations with the people I need to at those clubs. I said to them: ‘OK, we’re in tier six at the moment and some of your players might be ready for tier four or five, but the environment we are looking to create here will match as closely as we can a Championship or WSL team.’

“The right people know it is about the players being looked after the right way when they come here, and that is certainly what we can provide. It is a mixture of working with those teams in higher leagues but also looking up and down, within our own league, seeing what is available and getting out there.

“The club have been superb, and I am not just saying that. Since I came here, I’ve met with a lot of the men’s staff, I report to Neil (Hart), who has been super-welcoming, wants to make sure this is done properly. Even yesterday we were training at Lostock on grass pitches, we have access to everything there at the training ground, which is how it should be.

“This probably normal for someone like United, City, West Ham, WSL clubs, but not for most clubs in tier six, five, four, three – even some tier two teams.

“This speaks volumes of what we want to do as a club overall.

“Players love facilities, nice shiny things, and we’re looking for players here who want to be a part of the journey. I guarantee in two or three years that everyone will want to be a part of it, once we climb the leagues. But it might be too late for some.

“Board the ship now, if you will, because the boat is leaving!”

Smith will be assisted by Carl Halliwell, who has arguably done more than anyone else to keep competitive women’s and girls’ football flourishing in his role in Bolton Wanderers in the Community.

Quite aside from the promotion targets set for the senior team, there is also a recognition from the club that young girls playing football in the town should harbour aspirations to pull on the famous white shirt.

This summer, some of the successful juniors have earned contracts with bigger clubs in the locality - a testament to the excellent coaching they receive - but the grand plan involves them moving up the conveyor belt to play for Wanderers.

“Carl and his team have done an unbelievable job with the women’s team and the pathway down the years,” Smith said. “I have only known him for the past month but the passion he has for the club and for the women’s sector is unbelievable, the hours and the graft every day, you wouldn’t believe it. I don’t know how he’s still standing.

“Having worked in development football, that pathway is super-important. I was at West Ham, which is one of the best academies in world football, and some of the players we brought through there – Declan Rice, Grady Diangana, Josh Cullen – to be a part of it is just fantastic.

“When you watch Declan playing for England now, drop him a message to say well done, it feels as good as lifting a trophy, it really does.

“We want to replicate it here. The pathway is important. If we want to climb the leagues and be a sustainable club then you must get it right. We want girls to recognise there will be opportunities to come and play for Bolton’s first team.

“Just recently, we have had girls from 16s, 15s, 14s, go and play for Manchester United and Manchester City, which is great, but soon they won’t need to do that. We want an environment just as good.”

Bolton Wanderers Girls' Under-15s won the treble this seasonBolton Wanderers Girls' Under-15s won the treble this season (Image: BWFC)